One hundred fifty years ago John Dagg suggested that "when discipline leaves a church, Christ leaves with it." At that time, Baptists and most other evangelicals practiced a thorough church discipline. Over the next fifty years most evangelicals abandoned the practice. For at least three generations now, evangelical churches in the West have neglected it. Yet during this period, the Lord has blessed many of these churches in spiritual and material ways. So was Dagg right?
WE FEEL THAT DAGG SHOULD BE RIGHT, BUT
We no doubt feel that Dagg should be right. To neglect church discipline is to disobey to Jesus Christ. The Lord commands churches to exercise church discipline in Matthew 18:15-17, as well as in many other passages in the New Testament. Yet Christ evidently has not yet abandoned our evangelical churches, despite the fact that our churches have abandoned discipline. This fact reminds us that there is no simple correlation between a church's disobedience on the one hand and spiritual blight and abandonment by Christ on the other. Our Lord judges our disobedience in the time and measure of his wisdom.
One factor which may have delayed God's judgment is that our churches are faithful in significant areas of gospel service. Indeed, our ambition to spread the gospel has been an obstacle to obeying Christ in the matter of discipline. Many pastors and church members fear that disciplining wayward members will result in more harm than good for the advance of the gospel. It will drive "good" families away in shame and anger, and it will render us an object of ridicule and disgust among unbelievers, who view discipline as barbaric and contrary to common sense and compassion. Our churches neglect discipline out of fear that the practice will harm the cause of Christ.
But even with virtuous motives, disobedience is still disobedience, and we will be called to account. The fact that the Lord has shown great mercy and patience toward disobedient churches is no excuse for their disobedience. We are presuming upon the Lord's mercy and do not fear his judgment.
The neglect of church discipline, however, imperils the church in other fundamental ways. The loss of church discipline undermines the church's very foundations.
UNDERMINING THE CHURCH'S FOUNDATIONS
Churches which fail to practice discipline undermine their regenerate character. By omitting it, they tolerate sinful behavior in their membership and make themselves comfortable places for the unregenerate.
Churches which fail to practice discipline undermine also the church's holiness, since it weakens believers in their struggle against sin. Jesus provided discipline as one of his gospel remedies for sin, without which our sanctification will lag. Applying church discipline to our sinful diseases will strengthen Christians in our lifelong battle with Satan, the world, and the flesh.
Churches which fail to practice discipline further undermine their spirituality, zeal, and devotion to the Savior. Discipline teaches the church to obey the Lord in an area that it is distasteful, unpleasant, and contrary to the broader culture's sensibilities. In exercising discipline, we commit ourselves to Christ's spiritual way, even when reason, compassion, and civility seem to argue that we should not obey. Christians thus learn to trust the wisdom of Christ rather than the wisdom of the world. They learn to obey Christ regardless of the uncomfortable consequences.
In neglecting discipline, we train ourselves not to take up our cross, not to fear God, not to suffer willingly for Christ's sake, and not to oppose the world. And once well-trained by the neglect of church discipline, the churches will lose their commitment to the gospel itself.
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